Part 2: Songwriting and Composition Techniques

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Songwriting and Composition Techniques – Part 2

You’ve read part 1, of our blog series by freelance composer and music producer Michael Denny, who also runs the Audio Tapes. And now Michael brings us part two of songwriting and composition techniques.

6. Structure and Arrangement

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  • Try to write a song that is made up of 4 sections, all of which are different. Writing 4 different sections will make for an interesting progressive song structure that keeps the listener on their toes.
  • Choose a song that you like, listen to it, and write down its structure (eg. intro, verse, chorus, etc). You can then use this structure to start building up your own track using this outline.
  • Why not try producing a remix of one of your own songs. You could take samples from your own original track and aim it at a different audience and context, for example, you could look at creating a dance remix.

7. Instrumentation and Orchestration

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Instrumentation is the term used to describe which instruments are used in a track. This could be a list of the individual instruments used, or they may be grouped into common ensembles such as ‘string quartet’.

Orchestration is the term used to describe where each instrument or group of instruments is used in a track. For example, the piano may be played throughout, with strings and guitar only added during the chorus sections. Varying the orchestration throughout a piece gives the music a shape, keeping it interesting for the listener.

  • To create a piece of music that keeps building up gradually try starting a song with a single instrument, then add a new one for each section or loop (eg. every 16 bars). This technique is common in post-rock music.
  • The chorus is usually the most important part of a song, particularly when writing a pop song. To draw focus and attention to the chorus, try having more instruments playing in this section in comparison to the other sections of the song.
  • Try leaving space in your tracks and arrangements, minimal instrumentation and orchestration can be just as powerful as complex layers.

8. Lyrics

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  • Once you have decided on a topic that you would like to write about, create a mind map featuring all the words that you can think of that relate to the topic. You can then use these words to start writing your lyrics.
  • Pick up a newspaper and scan the articles for the headlines. Headlines make great song titles and can kick start your lyric writing. To push this idea further you can then read the article and use this as inspiration for your lyrics. There is a very famous Beatles song that uses this technique – see if you can work out which one it is!
  • It may be cliche, but try writing a love song. Love is a universal topic that everyone can relate to, that’s why there are so many songs about love.
  • Remember that lyrics don’t always have to make sense; artistic license allows you to write whatever you like, if it sounds catchy, go for it!
  • Reading poetry can be a really useful way of exposing yourself to new lyric writing ideas. Pay particular attention to the word structures used and the way that words can be used to paint a picture in your imagination.

9. Using Technology

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  • Record everyday sounds and use these in your compositions. These types of recording are known as field recordings or found sound and can work well when mixed with music. Some ideas include city sounds such as an underground train or a busy road or the relaxing sound of the sea. When you are using your recordings experiment with applying different effects such as distortion, reverb, delay, pitch shift or even reverse as this can create some interesting and unique sounds.
  • Effects pedals are usually made for guitars and bass, but they can be used to process other sound sources such as vocals, keyboards, synths and found sounds. Experimenting in this way allows you to create new sounds using your existing gear.
  • Catalogue and label the sound effects and audio you capture in detail so you can always find what you are looking for working. The more you add to your collection over time the more important this administration task becomes.

10. Collaboration

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  • If you are writing with a band, make sure that everyone is involved and sharing ideas and thoughts. Encourage each other to play different parts, this not only helps develop the song, but each individuals playing ability and the art of composing and performing with other musicians.
  • Go to second hand record shops and charity shops — buy something random that you wouldn’t normally buy, ask a member of staff to choose or recommend you something or listen to what they are playing in the shop – you never know, you might just stumble upon something inspirational or a new genre you have not considered before. The experience of a physical record can also be much more engaging than the infinite skipping possibilities of streaming.
  • The Internet is a great tool for collaboration, here are a few ways you could look to take advantage of new creative opportunities:
  • Remix competitions: many artists share the stems from their songs for remix competitions often with great prizes and exposure for the best entries. This is a great way for music lovers to find you through artists they already love.
  • File storage: can be used to share large audio files between band members, songwriters and collaborators worldwide.
  • Forums: can be a good place to meet other songwriters and music lovers to discuss anything from new artists that you might like to check out to what equipment is best for you to use in your setup.

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I am a freelance composer and music producer and recent credits include 25 hours of music for the Calm app, sample content for Sample Magic and Native Instruments Sounds and multiple remixes including Nick Hodgson (Kaiser Chiefs), Chvrches and Maximo Park. I am currently working on a series of library music album projects alongside new compositions for mindfulness. I also run the new Music and Creative Industry blog The Audio Tapes featuring reviews and tutorials.

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